- it is used for ‘normal movement’¹ and the tail
- reflects emotions through boy language, and provides signals to other cats,
the tail is not an essential piece of anatomy for the domestic cat. You only have to ask people who keep bob-tailed cats to find out. The Japanese Bobtail and the American Bobtail are usually perfectly contented cats. However, does a domestic cat born without a tail have slightly different behavioral characteristics to a cat that has the full set of anatomical features? Does a cat without a tail feel a bit like a cat without a leg? We don’t know and no one writes about that.
Although the tail is non-essential for the domestic cat, particularly the full-time indoor cat, it is very much a working piece of anatomy and essential for certain wild cat species. It is the wild cat species that inform us as to what the domestic cat’s tail is for: balance.
There are two classic examples. One lives in the trees; the clouded leopard, and the other lives in the high planes and rocky slopes of the mountains of Central Asia; the glorious snow leopard, which has to negotiate 40° slopes, routinely. Good balance for both these cats is required for survival.
Both these cats have the most awesome tails you are likely to see. They are very long; longer than the average domestic cat’s tail and considerably thick. I liken them to lengths of a ship’s anchor rope. You will see the snow leopard’s tail swish around as (s)he chases prey on treacherous terrain.
Of the small wild cat species, the margay is the master climber and tree dweller. This cat is monkey-like in the trees and his tail is the kind of tail you see on cats that need special help with balance.
How does a cat’s tail assist in keeping balance when negotiating a branch of a tree or a ledge of rock above a sheer drop? If the body has swayed to one side creating an imbalance, the tail will twist to the opposite side of the body to create a counterweight. The tail may also dip below the height of the body to provide an an equal and opposite torque on the body as in the fashion of the tight rope walker.
The domestic uses his or her tail when carrying out the self righting process in a fall. We know how clever cats are in landing on their feet. As to a form of body language, you will see the domestic cat’s tail-up-friendly-greeting. And the tail swish when hunting is a sign of uncertainty – a physical expression of a mental imbalance. I think that is a nice point to stop.
Margay cat picture copyright Adriane Taylor.
- The Cat, Its Behavior, Nutrition & Health ISBN 978-0-8138-0031-9